Taglit-Birthright Israel is a truly remarkable invention of contemporary Jewry. The offer of a cost-free 10-day trip to Israel — conceived of as the “birthright” of every Jewish young person — has brought hundreds of thousands of college-aged Jews to Israel.
Research by Len Saxe and his colleagues at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies has attested to numerous positive outcomes. Among them are higher rates of in-marriage, more attachment to Israel and frequent return trips there.
Since its inception in 1999, the program has generated a stunning breadth of support across the ideological spectrum. Originally conceived by Yossi Beilin, a former minister in the Israeli government and a peace activist, Birthright was brought to fruition by philanthropists Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt. Today, Sheldon Adelson is the program’s lead philanthropic benefactor. Any Jewish endeavor whose supporters range from Beilin to Adelson has a lot to say for itself.
Until recently, Birthright’s protocol limited eligibility to those who had never experienced prior educational trips to Israel, such as those offered to high school students by synagogues, Zionist youth movements, local federations and individual philanthropists. For years, these sponsors have argued that Birthright, with all its value and attraction, was having an adverse effect on their enrollment: If parents know their children can get a free trip if they are in the age range of 18–26, why spend thousands of dollars to send one’s 16- or 17-year old on a high school trip?
Recently, Birthright removed this eligibility barrier. That means that young adults age 18–26 who once traveled to Israel with such high school trip organizers as NFTY, USY, NCSY, Young Judaea, Habonim and BBYO will still be able to go on Birthright.
But if the point is to encourage Jewish teens to visit Israel on educational programs, why stop there? Why not offer teens a chance to use their one-time Birthright subsidy (worth about $3,000) before they start their undergraduate studies? Given the limited resources, it makes sense to limit the Birthright subsidy to one per customer. (And let’s not forget: These “customers” are our children and grandchildren.) Why not also facilitate those willing and able to travel to Israel somewhat earlier in their lives to do so?